Football Tactics

The World Cup has never been short of momentous substitutions, whose legacy would live on for years to come. Think substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul, who was brought on to replace his Dutch compatriot just 44 seconds before the end of extra time, with the sole purpose of handling the impending penalty shootout. Or how Mario Gotze, brought on at the 88th minute, scored the matchwinner that clinched Germany’s fourth World Cup title.


Tim Krul and Van GaalTim Krul and Louis van Gaal, Photo Credits: FIFA

We would later learn from Dutch manager Louis van Gaal that there was more to his decision to substitute his goalkeeper on that fateful night. As he revealed in an interview with FIFA, “we thought that by bringing on a goalkeeper for penalties, we’d be putting the pressure onto our opponents. They’d see this big goalkeeper coming on just for the penalties and would think, ‘He’s a specialist, he stops every penalty’, and it would play on their minds.”

The romantics love the substitute game-winner story. Yet, for every Tim Krul, there is a Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho. Both were brought on with the sole purpose of converting in the title-deciding penalty shootout back in the Euro 2020 finals. As it played out, they both missed their shots, disappointing the expectant home fans.

Those with more direct involvement with the game could see the substitutes’ bench as an undesirable situation. For the managers, the fact that they need to rely on their substitutes to change the game can be an unwanted admission of defeat. After all, if you have picked the right team, that setup should still work right till the last minute of the game. For the players, starting on the bench instead of on the pitch can easily be a difficult pill to swallow. This is because substitutes tend to come with the stigma that they were not deemed good enough to start.


Injured SonAn injured Son Heung Min assessed on the pitch, Photo Credits: Associated Press

The art of substitution is no easy skill to master. Take the upcoming World Cup for example. Postponed till November to account for Qatar’s heat, it places the showpiece tournament right in the middle of the club season (or thereabouts). As a result, there is quite a bit of fixture congestion where teams (and players) have to play 2-3 games per week consecutively in the lead-up to the World Cup. This has, directly or not, seen a flurry of injuries to key players right before the World Cup. A delicate balance between managing the physical and mental burnout of a congested season, versus the need to minimize the damage to the on-pitch quality, weighs heavily on the mind of every manager.

This is why the five substitutes rule could not have come at a better time. While it has been in play across multiple club leagues for at least 1-2 seasons, the 2022 World Cup will be the first time that this rule will be in play for this level of competition. For starters, the added flexibility within games would allow for the distribution of physical exertion, partially alleviating the risk of injury and fatigue.

While three substitutions already provide cover for an injury or two, or minor adjustments necessitated by the current score, having five substitutions opens up the avenue of big tactical shifts. Managers could overload a department with players with a particular attribute, like speed down the wings, then reset shortly after the objective has been accomplished.

The tactical permutations of this shift are endless. But one thing is certain, team rosters saturated with quality and a variety of skills benefit from this five substitutions rule more than those without. The defending world champions France, a team with an embarrassment of riches in just about every position, is a great example.

Sammy Lander of AFC Wimbledon has already tasted a modicum of success as the first recognized substitution coach, considering the club’s equally limited resources in the lower tiers of English football. Expect all eyes to be on how the managers capitalize on this asset to the best of their abilities in Qatar, particularly when freed from the shackles of small budgets.


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